Is still worth cattle ranching in Namibia?

Gone are the days when farming with cattle was the only focus of our villages’ existence.

Gone are the days when our grandparents could sell one or two cattle per year to send us to school, and feed the family at the same time.

Fine, traditionally, we used to farm with livestock as a way of life. There are the cattle which represent continuity of a generation as given to the parents to their kids. And then there are those cattle given as tokens from other relatives, maybe because you were a good child, or those cows bought from sentimental places/people. But most importantly, cows in the early days represented a sign of wealth.

The more cattle you had, the more wives you could marry, and the more children you could sire. Cattle are still significantly used as tokens from in-laws in most African traditions in a token called “lobola”, a token of appreciation to say “thank you” for the daughter whom the family has raised well. But things have changed, and we started making a living from the livestock, especially cattle.

Nowadays, the pertinent questions from cattle farmers in Namibia are gearing towards: Is the production cost not too high? Is it worth farming with cattle? Most farmers who sell their livestock understand that the good management of your livestock as well as a good production environment will ensure a profitable farming enterprise.

But over the years, the production costs of cattlefarming has skyrocketed. Have you noticed that the cattle prices at auctions haven’t changed much on average over the last couple of years? They have stayed stagnant between N$3500-N$4500 for an average cow.

In comparison, the chicken meat price steadily goes up. In fact, how come the chicken industry controls the prices of their goods, but live cattle and beef prices are not set by the producers?

Anyway, to quantify the production cost is not as straightforward. You have to start at the normal herd’s health management program.

This includes the annual vaccination cost, where farmers need to vaccinate for diseases such as Anthrax, Blackquater, Botulism, and Brucellosis for heifers. Young calves also need a booster vaccine which will also cost extra bucks. Extra costs also come from additional vaccines, such as for Lumpy Skin Disease, Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD) and Rift Valley Fever which farmers tend to vaccinate with when recommended. Similarly, the costs for deworming also put a dent in the pockets. It is recommended that you should deworm your cattle at least twice a year, depending on the area.

External parasite control then puts another dip in the budget for the cattle farmer. All cattle should at least be treated for external parasites three times per year with reputable remedies to ensure effective control. The general medication such as multi-vitamins and multi-minerals, antibiotics and wound management medicine and remedies should also be considered in the annual farming budget.

Every farmer should keep the necessary medicine box re-stocked, and this also includes instruments such as syringes, needles and gloves.

And I’m not even going to add the cost of veterinary services for now…

Then there are the supplementation program costs which involve fodder and mineral licks. With regards to this, I had a discussion with a very good friend Frank Kanguatjivi, an animal nutritionist with extensive work on livestock nutrition, and who is very familiar with our foraging conditions, especially in the villages.

To me, he is the right port of call when it comes to feeding ratios, nutrition and monthly estimates and expenditures per cattle head.

One thing which was clear from the discussion was that farmers should remember that feed supplements are given for different purposes. For example, feed meant for bulls won’t serve the same purpose when given to heifers, and such feed will not be relevant to lactating (suckling) cows either.

The supplementary feeding regime also varies according to the seasons. For example, the greenveld lick mostly consists of minerals, and the winter/dryveld lick has more proteins whilst the veld finisher lick given from June until September has both protein and energy.

So, you see, you have to keep the balance and buy different types of feed to serve the purpose of each and every head of cow according to the seasons, and all these have their specific costing. For a dry country like Namibia, the availability and cost of water is what ‘kills’ our farmers. How much does it cost to keep a borehole running per month? How much does it cost to water one cow?

All these costs should be kept in the budget of a cattle farming enterprise. The cost of labour hire also has a significant contribution towards the overall farming business. With the new laws now stipulating minimum wages and living conditions for menial labourers, the days are long gone of employing cheap labor.

The availability of land is a major struggle for farmers. In the villages, we struggle with overgrazing, overcrowding, land erosion and bush encroachment, amongst others.

In actual fact, the land that we claim to have is in fact so bush-encroached that it is no longer viable, and even cattle find it difficult to move around. Some farmers opt to clear some of their lands at a great cost.

In addition, because of no clear demarcation in these areas, even if a farmer manages to buy an expensive bull, it becomes the property of the whole village, and this negatively impacts his/her own production cost.

For those with demarcated farms, at least the first hassle is out. This is because to buy a farm where you would start farming with cattle is nowadays too expensive for the average farmer to afford.

For that matter, it’s even getting expensive to buy a proper motorvehicle from your cattle sales. In fact, how many cattle do you have to sell to buy a decent vehicle of N$400 000? You do the math!

The cost of farming infrastructure maintenance is another pain in the pocket. After all these financial outputs, the day of marketing is usually a great day for the livestock sellers.

You would feel the excitement in the air in anticipation of a “salary”. When those well-fed beasts are being sold, it’s truly a pleasure to watch. But on the other hand, the marketing costs on their own would be another pain.

Firstly, there is the transport cost involved. For example, to load cattle from the Otjombinde constituency to Gobabis where you would hope to get better prices would have you fork out a massive NS300 per cow to the transporter. On top of this, on average 6% of each cow price goes for commission to the farmers’ association or cooperative which had organized the auction. Having said that, more and more commercial farmers are now venturing into the diversification of their cattle enterprises, for example with small stock, chickens, pigs, crop farming and charcoal production to make ends meet.

Nowadays, game ranching is a lucrative market which fetches thousands of dollars.

The argument is: why should you keep a cow which gives you N$4500, if you can keep a wildebeest which can earn over N$50 000 in profits? Another lucrative business is to own properties. Imagine, Windhoek is second to Dubai when it comes to real estate price hikes, and some farmers gave up their farming entities to venture into this. So, for the property sellers, the returns are quite high.

Some also just rent the property out, which gives a monthly return, compared to a cow which you have to rear to a certain age and kg before you can reap the benefits. After this debate regarding the output of cattle farming (including other hidden costs), the question remains to be answered.

Is it still worth farming with cattle in Namibia? It is up to you the cattle farmer to decide. Is farming a way of life, or is it really a profitable enterprise? Are we farming because you cannot imagine yourself without cattle, or is it for prestige or for profits? … you tell me.

I can tell you from my side… hell YES, I will farm with cattle, against all odds!! Garamushe